Review of Derrida (film, 2002)

Jacques Derrida is one of my favorite philosophers. Although his writings are dense, complex, and seemingly indecipherable at times, he has significantly impacted both philosophy and popular culture through his idea of deconstruction. When in seminary, I wrote an exegetical paper theorizing that the author of Ecclesiastes might be engaged in a project similar to deconstruction. I was interested in the ways that uncertainty and instability are always at play, even when we work so hard to create a stable life and maintain beliefs and perspectives that are certain and unshakable. It’s as though we are looking for stable ground precisely because our paths are so shaky.

So, I was eager to watch the documentary Derrida (2002). Filmed while the philosopher was still living, the documentary centered on interactions and interviews with Derrida, interspersed with readings of his writings.

My reaction to the film is mixed. Positively, the film did not seek to glamorize Derrida or cash in on his celebrity value. Instead, it presented a very human and ordinary Derrida. For example, the Derrida of the film was defensive at times, transparent about keeping the viewer at a safe distance. This was quite startling for me. Derrida, of any philosopher, should be aware of how futile it is to control one’s image or to manage other’s perception of him.

It is not as though the Derrida of the film was trying to present a false image. He was not cultivating a specific “Derrida” as a public spectacle, not proactively trying ot put forth an image; rather, he keeps retreating from presenting any glimpses into the person. The inner Derrida is off limits. Instead of engaging his feelings or processing his inner world, for example, Derrida continually side-tracks the viewer by calling attention to the artificiality of video cameras. To further distance the viewer from himself, Derrida might also engage in abstract speculation on the nature of evading personal reflection!

The curious thing Derrida’s strategy is that Derrida’s own comments seem to deconstruct his own elusive behavior. At one point he is asked what he would like to know about past philosophers, if he could watch a filmed biography. He responds that he would be interested in their love lives and their sex lives, because he is interested in hearing philosophers speak of what they do not wish to speak of. The film left me feeling like there was a vast void of unknowability to Derrida that was begging to be explored, to prick, poke, and prod Derrida to speak of what he did not wish to speak of. I wonder if this kind of transparency might have been a positive experience both for the viewer and also for Derrida. My guess is that Derrida hid himself precisely because he wanted to be found.

To those interested in Derrida or his philosophy, there are several philosophical interviews in the Special Features of the DVD. These are worth their weight in gold, and of themselves are worth purchasing the DVD. Of particular interest, to me, are Derrida’s comments on forgiveness. (This is a section of the film itself, not an interview in the Special Features.) In a previous life, I have blogged a bit about Derrida’s explorations on the paradoxes of forgiveness, so I will merely refer the curious reader to that post, Derrida Deconstructs Forgiveness. Derrida is at his best (or at least he is most comfortable!) when he is engaged in nonpersonal philosophic discourse, and the DV definitely delivers on this count.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

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Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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